There's new life in Kentucky's basketball season. But John Calipari would remind you that not so long ago, his Wildcats were flatlining.
So while the Wildcats (19-8, 10-4 Southeastern Conference) are coming off perhaps their best performance of the season in last Saturday's win against Missouri - and though they're playing the SEC's worst team in Mississippi State (7-19, 2-12) on Wednesday - Calipari wants his players to remember how fast fortunes can change.
"One week ago we were in coffins, people were trying to nail them shut," Calipari said Tuesday. "Now all the sudden, we're like 'OK, wow.' Well, you can go right back to where you were if you don't have maturity or toughness."
Talent alone should be enough for Kentucky against the Bulldogs, who have lost 12 straight games by an average of 21.7 points per game. Mississippi State started 2-0 in SEC play but hasn't won since Jan. 26.
"They've had some teams almost beat, I think Cal said," guard Jarrod Polson said. "We had a really focused practice yesterday. Cal was really on us, making sure we're not going to look past this team at all."
It would be easy to do.
Mississippi State has six available scholarship players and are playing walk-on Tyson Cunningham significant minutes.
The Bulldogs have lost freshmen Andre Applewhite and Jacoby Davis to anterior cruciate ligament injuries. Senior Wendell Lewis is out indefinitely with a fractured right patella. Sophomore forward Roquez Johnson is suspended.
"I would wonder if anybody in history of college basketball has gone through what we've went through as far as the off-the-court issues and the injuries," first-year Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. "It's been a trying season, and to our guys' credit they've really hung in there and tried to be good citizens and do some of the things we want them to do on the court and continue to try to compete."
Competitiveness has been hard to come by.
But while the Bulldogs are heavy underdogs, Kentucky - as is Calipari's custom - is more focused on itself than its opponent. Last Saturday's 90-83 overtime win against Missouri was a high-water mark for the Cats, a come-from-behind win against a quality opponent after which Tigers coach Frank Haith praised UK's toughness.
It was a critical step for the Cats in finding a post-Nerlens Noel identity. UK now is 2-1 without the freshman forward - lost for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee - and has won two straight since an 88-58 blowout loss at Tennessee.
Asked what the Wildcats have shown the NCAA Tournament selection committee about their post-Noel profile, forward Kyle Wiltjer said, " That we're scrappy and we pulled out an overtime win and even through adversity we're learning how to play without him. I think we're a tough team, even without him."
Calipari said the win against Missouri helped eliminate "every cop out and excuse" his team can use. He knows his players can play hard and tough and together. Now he expects them to do it regularly.
And that starts with moving on to Mississippi State.
"I don't care what we did in that (Missouri) game," Calipari said. "What's the next game? Now are we going to establish how we play or are we going to be immature and revert back to where we were because that's how you want to play, because you think it's easier? We're just - every day is a lesson."
Site: Rupp Arena (23,000), Lexington, Ky.
TV: SEC Network (Dave Neal play by play, Jon Sundvold analyst); SEC Network affiliates.
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network (Tom Leach play-by-play, Mike Pratt analyst); Sirius 106/XM 200.
Favorite: Kentucky by 19.5
Series record: Kentucky leads 88-20
At Lexington: Kentucky leads 44-5
Coaches' records: Calipari 4-0 vs. Mississippi State; Ray 0-1 vs. Kentucky
Last meeting: Kentucky 73, Mississippi State 64, Feb. 21, 2012, Starkville, Miss.
Darius Miller scored all 12 of his points in the final eight minutes of the game as the Wildcats battled back from a 41-28 halftime deficit to beat the Bulldogs. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 18 points and 10 rebounds and Anthony Davis 13 points and 11 rebounds for UK. The Cats didn't lead until the 4:11 mark of the second half, but never trailed after that.
Keys to the Game
1. Rock Bottom: It will be hard for Mississippi State to play any worse against Kentucky than it did last Saturday in a 72-31 home loss to Vanderbilt. In that game, the Bulldogs made seven field goals (their fewest in the shot clock era), shot 17.5 percent and had 17 rebounds (their fewest since 1982). It was Mississippi State's second-worst loss ever at Humphrey Coliseum and marked the Bulldogs' 12th straight loss. During that losing streak, Mississippi State twice has shot less than 24 percent from the floor.
2. Numbers Game: Mississippi State's unfortunate statistics don't stop with its losing streak or its performance against Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs rank 242nd in the RPI, and Ken Pomeroy's experience rankings put Mississippi State 329th among 347 Division I teams. Southeastern Conference statistics rank teams in 21 different categories. Mississippi State ranks last in 11 of them: scoring offense, scoring defense, scoring margin, field-goal percentage, field-goal percentage defense, three-point field-goal percentage, rebounding margin, assists, assist-to-turnover ratio, defensive rebounding percentage and three-point field goals made. That's in all games. The Bulldogs are last in 13 different categories in league play.
3. Streaking State: Given their struggles since, it's easy to forget that the Bulldogs started 2-0 in the SEC, with wins against South Carolina and at Georgia. But Mississippi State hasn't won since. During that stretch, the Bulldogs are being outscored by an average of 76.6 points per game to 54.8. State is shooting 38.2 percent in that span, including 26.4 percent from three-point range. Opponents are shooting 49 percent and 36.3 percent from long range. The Bulldogs are averaging 17.1 turnovers per game during the streak.